Northern Territory: Alice Springs

Chris Whitelaw — 7 February 2019

The legendary outback town of Alice Springs stands roughly in the geographic heart of Australia, as far away from Darwin as it is from Adelaide — about 1500km to both. As the ‘Gateway to the Red Centre’, it is within striking distance of iconic destinations including Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), Watarrka (Kings Canyon) and the MacDonnell Ranges. 

But Alice is a worthy destination in its own right, with enough attractions to keep a committed traveller busy for a week or more.

OVERLAND HISTORY



Alice Springs was named after Lady Alice Todd, the wife of South Australia's Postmaster-General, Sir Charles Todd, the driving force behind the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin. The actual springs, which lie northeast of the town, were discovered in 1871 and the site was named by one of the Telegraph surveyors. 

Alice straddles the almost perennially dry Todd River on the northern side of the MacDonnell Ranges, and is accessed by road and rail link from the south through Heavitree Gap, a narrow defile in the range. The centre of town occupies a compact area between the Stuart Highway and Leichhardt Terrace, bordered to the north and south by Wills Terrace and Stott Terrace respectively. Bisecting this rectangle is Todd Mall, a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with cafes and Aboriginal art galleries. 

The lookout atop Anzac Hill (off Wills Terrace) provides a 360-degree view over the town and its setting within the pastel-hued ranges that spread enticingly to the east and west.

The town is an important tourist hub and service centre for a region spanning half a million square kilometres and it includes a number of mining and pastoral communities. Tourism is a major industry, and Alice has a lot to offer travellers – excellent museums, a fine wildlife park, outstanding galleries of Indigenous art, a wide range of accommodation, good dining options and well-developed travel connections. 

Alice Springs is a proudly multicultural community with a wide demographic that includes New Zealand, USA, India, UK, Germany, Italy and the Philippines. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 18 per cent of the town’s population. 

The resulting culture is a fascinating blend of ancient Arrernte mystique and cosmopolitan chic, imbued with a unique vibrancy that you don’t get in the languid tropical north.

Located just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, Alice Springs is surrounded by arid sandy plains, mulga scrubland and the rocky MacDonnell Ranges, a mountain chain stretching for hundreds of kilometres, incised by spectacular gorges with tranquil, gum-lined waterholes. 

These beautiful brick-red canyons are important refuges for plants and animals and feature significantly in the folklore of the Arrernte people. The town’s elevation – — a surprising 545m ASL — moderates to some extent the desert climate of baking hot days, sub-zero nights and erratic, meagre rainfall.

ARRERNTE HERITAGE

The traditional owners are the Central Arrernte Aboriginal people, who have lived here for more than 30,000 years and call this place Mparntwe (pronounced mbarn-twa). In their culture most of the local landforms were created by their Caterpillar Ancestors who gathered from afar for ceremonies. The Caterpillar Dreaming story and many other ancient myths and symbols are reflected in the rich diversity of local Aboriginal art.

The European history of Alice Springs began in 1861, when John McDouall Stuart and his expedition passed through the MacDonnell Ranges to the west of Heavitree Gap. A white settlement was formed 10 years later with the construction of a telegraph repeater station near a waterhole dubbed ‘Alice Springs’. The station was part of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), which traced Stuart's route through the interior and linked Adelaide to Darwin and Great Britain. Today, the station is a popular heritage attraction.

In 1887, gold was discovered at Arltunga, 100km away in the East MacDonnell Ranges, sparking a rush. The rush fizzled and Arltunga was abandoned, but the township of Stuart (as Alice was then known) remained, serving pastoralists, prospectors and missionaries. Cattle stations opened up, some the size of small European countries, and relied on Alice as a vital point of supply, transport and communication. 

During WWII, Alice Springs was an important staging base for the movement of Allied troops and material to Australia’s northern defences. Following Japanese air raids on Darwin in 1942, a large number of civilians, military personnel and heavy equipment were rapidly moved south to Alice, which became the Territory’s war-time administrative capital. War-related operations necessitated improvements in the town’s road, power and water infrastructure. 

During the 1960s the town became an important defence location with the development of covert operations such as the ‘Seismic Vault’ to detect the ground movements of possible nuclear testing in the then USSR, and the Joint Defence Space Research Facility (satellite monitoring base) at Pine Gap. The sealing of the Stuart Highway enhanced Alice Springs’ proximity to Uluru and other Red Centre ‘hot spots’, leading to a boom in global tourism  in the 1970s and 1980s.

DESERT REFLECTIONS

The Alice Springs Desert Park, 7km from the town centre, is the perfect introduction to the region’s desert environment. You could spend a whole day walking the trails, seeing the birds of prey exhibition in the open-air amphitheatre (not to be missed), and doing the bush foods and medicine tour. 

The Olive Pink Botanic Garden is a 16ha masterclass in desert flora, an important collection of exotic plants, mature native trees and shrubs in a landscaped setting on the eastern banks of the Todd River. The Alice Springs Reptile Centre is also home to the largest reptile display in Central Australia.

Alice Springs has many historic buildings, including the Overland Telegraph Station, the Old Courthouse (housing the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame), the Residency (former residence of the Government Representative to Central Australia), and Adelaide House, a beautiful stone building built in 1926 in the middle of the Mall which was Central Australia's first hospital. Other attractions along 'The Flynn Trail' include the John Flynn Memorial Church in Todd Mall, the multi-award-winning Alice Springs School of the Air ("The World's Largest Classroom"), the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum (located in the original Radio Station House), and John Flynn’s Grave, located at the foot of Mount Gillen.

For a small town, Alice Springs also boasts an extraordinary number of museums conserving many aspects of the region’s history and culture, and more galleries per capita than anywhere else in the country.

The Alice Springs Transport Heritage Centre contains the National Road Transport Hall of Fame, the Old Ghan Heritage Railway Museum and the Kenworth Dealer Truck Museum, collectively touted, with some justification, to be "the most comprehensive land transport museum in the southern hemisphere". The Central Australia Aviation Museum, housed in the Connellan Airways Hangar (Alice's original aerodrome), displays restored planes and paraphernalia revealing pioneer aviation in the Territory.

The Museum of Central Australia's animal and fossil displays tells the story of the region's natural and geological history, and houses the Strehlow Research Centre. It also has one of Australia's most important collections of film, sound, archival records and museum objects relating to Indigenous ceremonial life. The museum is part of the Araluen Cultural Precinct. 

PLENTY TO DO

Alice Springs' desert lifestyle has inspired several unique events, such as the Camel Cup, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, the Beanie Festival, Parrtjima Festival, and the Tatts Finke Desert Race. Visit the Alice Springs Town Council website for upcoming events.

The ‘local’ attractions aren’t confined to the urban district but embrace spectacular desert landscapes to the east, west and south, all within easy driving distance. To the west of Alice, elemental forces have carved the ancient spine of the MacDonnell Ranges into a series of towering cliffs, rocky chasms and semi-permanent waterholes — Standley Chasm, Simpson Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, Ormiston Gorge and Redbank Gorge — all connected by sealed roads or the challenging 230km Larapinta Trail, voted by National Geographic as one of the world’s top 20 treks. 

To the east, the Ross Highway leads to the equally impressive Emily and Jessie Gaps, Trephina Gorge, N’Dhala Gorge and the Arltunga Historic Reserve. For those with a 4WD and a hankering for more remote adventure involving bush camping, there is Finke Gorge National Park and Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, south of Alice Springs.

Surrounded by all this natural splendour, enriched by timeless Arrernte culture, imbued with pioneering spirit, and pulsing with vibrant arts and a calendar of flamboyant events, Alice is truly the beating heart of Australia's Red Centre.

Parrtjima: A Festival of Light:

Since 2016, Alice Springs (Mparntwe) has hosted ‘Parrtjima’, a spectacular festival celebrating Indigenous culture through lighting installations that display extraordinary contemporary Aboriginal art by some of Central Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal artists. The huge (and free) creative 10-day program packed with dance, film, music by local and national musicians and talks with artists and performers. 

It offers the only ‘authentic’ Aboriginal light show of its kind in the world. The Alice Springs Desert Park is the Festival Hub and venue for a key highlight of the program – the technicolour illumination of a 2km ridge of the adjacent MacDonnell Range using powerful projectors driven by state-of-the-art media servers and software, synchronised with a high fidelity soundtrack. The result is an extraordinary and breathtaking ‘painting’ on a 300-million-year-old canvas.

The name ‘Parrtjima’ ('par-chee-ma') was chosen by local elders, drawn from words in the Arrernte language that mean to shine or shed light and understanding on a subject – reflecting the festival’s aim of imparting knowledge of, and respect for, the culture of the desert people. 

As traditional owner Benedict Kngwarraye Stevens explains: "Parrtjima helps us show the world that Arrernte country is alive and how beautiful it is, so that visitors and all the non-Arrernte people who live here can have deeper respect for it, and to see how much it means to us. We want people to understand that it has always been a part of us. Parrtjima helps our young people stand tall in front of the world and say, ‘This is our country, this is our art, and this is our culture – and it is good’.”

Since time immemorial, Mparntwe has been an important place for ceremony among the Arrernte people and a traditional meeting place with other tribes in transit. Lying at the heart of a traditional network connecting these various Aboriginal ‘estates’, it was considered appropriate that a celebration of their cultures should be conducted here. From its initial focus on Arrernte culture, Parrtjima has evolved to embrace artwork from across the wider Central Desert region, to show that 'Indigenous Art' comes from more than one people group, and is more than just dots.

Parrtjima will return for a fourth consecutive year on 5-14 April 2019, with the theme ‘Language Expressions’, coinciding with the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages.

FAST FACTS:

Alice Springs Visitor Information Centre, Cnr Todd Mall and Parsons Street, Alice Springs 

  • Ph: (08) 8952 5800 or 1800 645 199 (bookings)
  • Email: info@discoverca.com.au
  • Web: www.discovercentralaustralia.com

Parks and Wildlife Commission NT

Central Land Council

  • 27 North Stuart Highway, Alice Springs
  • Ph: (08) 8951 6211
  • Web: www.clc.org.au.

Alice Springs Desert Park 

Museum of Central Australia

Alice Springs Reptile Centre

Araluen Arts Centre

School of the Air Visitor Centre

National Women’s Museum

Alice Springs Tourist Park

BIG4 MacDonnell Range Holiday Park

Heritage Caravan Park

Wintersun Cabin and Caravan Park

Tags

Outback Adventure Travel Explore Journey Destination Alice Springs

Photographer

Chris Whitelaw and James Horan